Recently, when thinking about thinking, I realised that human beings have two different intellects that they can use when learning about themselves, others, and society.

The first intellect is a highly efficient reasoning that we use when we need to make snap judgments about people and situations. We often do this automatically and implicitly. Imagine meeting a person for the first time. She is a woman, she is a black woman, she is a black trans woman, she is a black trans woman wearing a form fitting red dress. She is smoking a cigarette and the smoke bothers you.

Generally when someone meets her they make a few snap judgements about whether she is in a position of power, in a position to help, a threat, friendly, or hostile. These judgments are made based on former exposures to someone like her- either from the media, from stories, from people encountered in the past, and from the situation. Using the intellect in this way can help us form a foundation for meeting others, but often the foundation is far from adequate, and can reinforce biased notions to a person’s advantage or disadvantage. People have been killed because of false assumptions and implicit bias.

This way of thinking is somewhat like anxiety- anxiety, when in an appropriate situation, prepares our bodies and minds for fight or flight. Similarly, the aforementioned way of thinking prepares us for on-our-toes reasoning and snap judgments in the face of strange situations. When anxiety is misplaced it becomes a disorder. When this reasoning about humans is misplaced, our society becomes disordered.

Now, the other form of intellect is on a higher level and tends to require practice and intention in order to cultivate it. On the higher level we do not use as much unverified information and assumption to form the foundation of our interactions. Rather, we use critical reasoning based on what we know to be True within ourselves. We can still be aware of biases and assumptions, but we transcend them based on real understanding about being human.

What do I mean when I speak of what is “true” within ourselves? I am referring to information gathered out of the experience of life; gathered out of our internal struggles, as opposed to external sources. As we go through things we get to know ourselves better and better. Our humanity is revealed throughout the course of living, through joy and pain. We learn physically about what it means to digest food, and how to handle discomfort, and we learn mentally about what thoughts are helpful, about using strategy, and we learn emotionally how to handle our anger, happiness and love. Often we do not pay close attention to this information, passing it off as irrelevant to those outside of ourselves.

Instead of letting that inward knowledge sit quietly in the back of our minds, the higher intellect can draw it out and examine it. It examines what it means to have a physical body, what it means to have a mind, and what it means to love and lose. This intellect then uses this very real information, subjective though that it is, to form a humane foundation for encountering others.

Instead of meeting the woman and using our externally acquired information to make snap judgments, we can use our higher intellect to identify with her first and foremost as a living human being, who likely has some relatable life experience to our own. Instead of starting with what is external and outside of ourselves, the higher intellect starts from what might be common within ourselves. While it creates space for us to relate, it also creates space for us be different on our own terms, as we get to know each other.

Now, the two intellects can be addressed when we speak of social change. In the first instance (the lower intellect), if we change the type of information that people encounter about others, change the types of exposures in the media that they have, and shine more of a light on their relatable humanity, then we can change the outcome of peoples interactions. We can tweak our implicit bias to be more accepting. To summarise, this method is all about adding information to an already large cache of assumptions. It works sometimes, but it is not very expansive because enough people are not wanting or able to go out of their way study the world and acquire more information about others.

The other method is to quiet the noise of all the information and assumptions that we’ve acquired externally, and let the higher intellect take over. When it does, the higher intellect uses our own experiences as human beings to relate to others, to allow commonalities and be interested in differences. This becomes easier and easier the more concisely we understand ourselves. For instance if one understands ones need for inclusion, or the joy one has when doing a job or activity they like, or the pain of losing a companion, or what they feel when they receive a thoughtful gift, then the intellect can use these things to more accurately inform us not only about ourselves, but about others and their needs too. It is not perfect information, but it is simpler and closer to reality than, for example, relying on information we acquired from the 15 movies we saw over the last decade, plus the 6 books read, the nightly news, the 8 TV series, and the radio talk show.

The reason this higher intellect works better is because our foundation for getting to know others starts with the most accessible resource: us. Who better to understand ourselves than ourselves? External information is more vulnerable to misunderstandings and extremes in interpretation. Internal information has more available context, and immediate feedback. We can analyse ourselves through a process that is related to what psychologists might call “insight”.

It seems to me that the inward journey is more than just spiritual hoo-haw, it is an aspect of the mind that affects not only ourselves, but others we encounter. Exercising the use of the higher intellect can help us to overcome our own implicit biases, and to let go of the assumptions we may be unconsciously making about other people.

If I had an fMRI machine and could do a study looking at these two different intellects, I would hypothesise that I would find differences regarding which part of the brain they operate in. But I do not have a scanner, and I may never end up with one. What I do have is my own experience, and an understanding of the importance of “quieting” the noise of extraneous information.


fMRI Photo from Wikipedia:
Version 8.25 from the Textbook
OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
Published May 18, 2016